Renewed violence in Sierra Leone is a sign of fragility and polarization | Opinions

by MMC
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The state has been showing worrying signs of growing fragility since the disputed June 2023 presidential election.

Two decades after the end of its deadly civil war, Sierra Leone once again finds itself on the brink of conflict.

On November 26, gunmen attacked a military barracks and prison in the capital Freetown, killing at least 20 people, including 13 soldiers, and leading authorities to declare a nationwide curfew. In an apparent attempt to downplay the severity of the threat to the country, the government initially declared the incident to be merely a “security breach.” He now says it was a “failed coup attempt” which aimed to “illegally subvert and overthrow a democratically elected government.”

This raises widespread concerns in a region where progress towards democracy appears to be thwarted by a wave of coups – four West African countries are now under military rulers who seized power through coups and apparently have no immediate plans to return their country to civilian rule. .

The November 26 armed attack was the second “coup attempt” Sierra Leone has witnessed in the five months since the controversial June 2023 presidential election, in which President Bio narrowly avoided the second round. In August 2023, the government arrested several individuals, including military personnel and civilians, and accused them of planning a coup.

It is unclear whether the two “coup attempts” or previous violent incidents, such as the anti-government riots in Freetown in August 2022, which claimed the lives of more than 25 people, are related. one way or another. Regardless, the undeniable upsurge in violence in recent months and years reflects Sierra Leone’s continued fragility after investing in peace and state-building projects for two decades.

Especially since the 2023 elections, the state has shown signs of increasing fragility. The boycott of the government (and their seats in parliament) by the main opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC), on the grounds that the 2023 presidential elections were “rigged”, blocked the normal functioning of the government and undermined the legitimacy of President Julius Maada Bio.

The two parties eventually signed a “National Unity Agreement” under which the APC agreed to occupy its seats in Parliament, but this did not completely resolve the situation, especially as some members of the The APC continued to express their dissatisfaction with the terms of the agreement. agreement.

This political impasse, compounded by an acute cost-of-living crisis and falling living standards, likely helped create space for dissidents to explore opportunities to overthrow the government.

No organized political group has claimed responsibility or been linked to of November 26, or the alleged coup in August, but both incidents occurred against the backdrop of myriad unresolved political grievances related to the June 2023 presidential election and arose from the the country’s deeply polarized partisan politics.

Even though strong legal frameworks have been established to support inclusive democracy, political practice in Sierra Leone is a winner-takes-all affair, and partisan affiliation has yet to transcend the ethno-regional divisions that have emerged in the political struggle to replace the British colonial system. government after independence in 1961. Simply put, rather than representing platforms for the articulation of common visions and policies, the two main parties – the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the Opposition APCs – largely represent platforms for political expression of shared policies. ethnicity.

This division is frequently reflected in election results, controversies surrounding population censuses, government appointment and recruitment of civil servants, and promotion mechanisms. Although power has been transferred twice (2007 and 2018) from one party to another, losing elections in Sierra Leone is not easily accepted as part of healthy democratic competition. It also poses risks to employment and livelihoods, reduced access to opportunities and marginalization of one’s ethnic group in public life.

This explains why elections in Sierra Leone are hotly contested. The recent 2023 elections highlighted this point more poignantly, challenging the idea that Sierra Leone is a pluralist democracy. Neither the SLPP nor the APC could freely campaign in each other’s traditional regions. For ordinary Sierra Leoneans concerned about key issues of governance and service delivery as a basis for political participation, supporting a political party that is not dominant among their loved ones puts them at risk of being labeled traitors.

President Bio’s new cabinet includes relatively young politicians and technocrats from both regions. The inclusion of these young technocrats, from ethnic groups originating from the north and south of the country, within the government is probably a decision taken in response to the controversy surrounding the president’s re-election. Yet this has not proven enough to appease the political cabals on both sides. These appointments created upheaval within Bio’s SLPP, as senior leaders with deep ties to the party’s support base lost their ministerial posts to relatively unknown young technocrats. Similarly, APC leaders do not accept the appointment of young northerners to government as a step towards political inclusion; rather, they perceive these appointments as Bio’s maneuvers to co-opt members of their support base. Bio therefore faces the daunting task of maintaining elite stability, in addition to the regular task of governing and providing services to everyday Sierra Leoneans.

The recent decision by the APC to accept the legitimacy of the government, coupled with the announcement of the formation of a multi-party electoral reform committee, indicates that Sierra Leone is finally on the path to political stability, but the ” coup attempts” and the “security failures” experienced since the June elections demonstrate that – without deeper political reforms and social cohesion – security threats resulting from persistent fragility and extreme political polarization are likely to persist for some time.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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